Life in a major league bullpen is strange. Forty-eight hours ago, the Nationals relief corps was exhausted, desperately in need of a night off, forever grateful to Max Scherzer for giving them exactly that with a complete game and then grateful to Stephen Strasburg for nearly duplicating the feat the next night.
So the unit was well-rested and ready to go today when the Nationals hosted the Braves in their series finale. And then 3 hours, 43 minutes and 12 innings of baseball later, everybody was kind of right back where they started after Davey Martinez needed to summon six of them during what wound up a 5-3 loss.
“It’s funny how this game works: You get a complete game and an eight-inning game out of your two big guns, and all of a sudden the bullpen’s empty,” veteran Shawn Kelley said. “Only in baseball does that happen. So, yeah, it’s tough. You go out there and you grind. ... I don’t even know what inning I was in.”
For the record, Kelley pitched the top of the 11th. The game was tied 2-2 when he entered. Two pitches later, the Braves led 3-2 after Kurt Suzuki lofted a fastball that ran back over the plate to left field and over the fence for his second solo homer of the day.
“I missed with that one,” said Kelley, who had retired all nine batters he had faced previously to begin the season. “I’d like to have that one back. Still didn’t think it was going to get out, but it’s kind of where his power is.”
Kelley wound up letting two more Atlanta batters reach base before he pitched his way out of the jam with back-to-back-to-back strikeouts. And thanks to Howie Kendrick’s two-out RBI double in the bottom of the inning, he was never on the hook for the loss.
That distinction went to Ryan Madson, who did pitch Tuesday night and recorded the final two outs to secure the win for Strasburg and a save for himself but struggled in this appearance. The Braves jumped on the veteran right-hander, getting a leadoff single from Ozzie Albies and another from Freddie Freeman to put the pressure on.
When Nick Markakis walked, the bases were loaded with nobody out. And though Madson got Suzuki to pop up for the first out, he was left feeling helpless when Peter Bourjos scooted a seeing-eye single past the drawn-in right side of the infield to bring home the two decisive runs.
“It was a hectic inning,” Madson said. “But I didn’t feel too bad. ... It’s unfortunate that we battled back so many times that game, to not hold it for ‘em, for the guys.”
Madson was making his fourth appearance in five days, a heavy workload that isn’t unusual for him but is heavier than most managers would like in mid-April. Martinez didn’t have much choice at that point, though, with Trevor Gott the only other member of the seven-man bullpen who had yet to pitch in this game.
“I was a little concerned with Madson,” the manager said. “I really didn’t want to use him today, but he said he was available. But my concerns will be tomorrow. See where he’s at tomorrow.”
Madson made no excuses for today’s result, no matter how much he has thrown in recent days.
“You’re out there to pitch. You take the ball,” he said. “As soon as they call your name, you’re going to take the ball and throw. I don’t think anybody’s feeling like: ‘Oh man, we’re overworked.’ Or: ‘We’re doing too much.’ No, we’ve just got to keep battling. Maybe make a little bit better pitches, in my case.”
There are multiple ways to view today’s game. The Nationals had to be pleased with the manner in which they twice rallied to tie things up. They had to be pleased with A.J. Cole’s bounceback performance eight days after he was lit up by the same Braves lineup. And they had to be pleased with the broader performance of their bullpen, which saw Matt Grace, Sammy Solís, Brandon Kintzler and Sean Doolittle combine to toss 4 2/3 scoreless innings before things devolved in the 11th and 12th.
In the end, little of that mattered as much as the final score, which put a damper on the entire proceedings.
“No, it’s still frustrating that we lost,” Doolittle said. “There are silver linings we can take from this moving forward. We won the series. I think overall we played a pretty good game of baseball today. But to come that close to getting a sweep after a really tough series against New York, and the Braves are playing really well ... that would’ve been a really big win for us.”